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Business Heroes: Carousell Co-Founder Shares Tips on Working with Friends and Overcoming Challenges Together

Is running a business with friends better or something to be avoided? Marcus Tan gives the low-down on what’s it like to co-found and manage Carousell for a decade now with two of his friends. 

As the old saying goes, “Don’t mix business with pleasure.” However one chooses to interpret this saying, it’s safe to say that conventional wisdom advocates separating the work domain from the personal one. 

But the line may be blurred for businesses co-founded by friends. According to Noam Wasserman who studied 10,000 tech startups, 40% of founders were friends before starting a business

The former Harvard Business School professor said in his book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, that the likelihood of failure rises when founders are friends, and each friend on the founding team increases the likelihood of founder turnover by over 30%!

So, is starting a business with friends a definite no-no? 

Workipedia by MyCareersFuture speaks to Marcus Tan, co-founder of Carousell — a unicorn startup hiring on MyCareersFuture, which he established with two of his university friends, to find out more. 

How did you guys get to know each other and how did the idea to co-found Carousell come about?

Siu Rui and I first met in 2004 in a marketing interest group at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Later, we both went on a one-year exchange to Silicon Valley under the National University of Singapore’s Overseas College Program. 

Siu Rui introduced Lucas, who was his roommate at Silicon Valley, to me when we were all back in Singapore. 

The year at Silicon Valley sparked our entrepreneurial curiosity and inspired us to use technology to solve meaningful problems at scale. We realised that the three of us shared this common desire and vision, and had complementary skill sets that made it much easier to take the leap and work on Carousell together.

Left to right: Marcus Tan, Quek Siu Rui, Lucas Ngoo (Image credit: Carousell)

The alternatives for buying and selling online were often tedious and a convoluted process if you weren’t a power user. We were convinced we could leverage the mobile experience and create an overall better experience that was simpler and familiar for many. 

So for us, building Carousell from the ground up to be a mobile-first experience was our solution to disrupt the classifieds sector.

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What are some of the challenges faced in Carousell’s early stages and how were they overcome?

It took nearly two years for Carousell to take off. There were sacrifices such as going 18 months without drawing a salary and having to live off our savings. 

In our first year, the key challenge we faced was growing our community. There were days when we had single-digit sign-ups. People were telling us that we were up against well-established players.

Read More: Business Heroes: How This S’porean Went From Having $3 in the Bank to Helming a Million-Dollar Company

However, we did not give up because of two key reasons. Firstly, we were passionate about the mission and the problem. Although there are a ton of challenges in running a startup, we keep persevering and pressing on because we care a lot about what we do.

Secondly, we believed there are people who could benefit from the Carousell platform. Despite the low sign-ups, there were early positive indicators that we were building something people wanted. 

We had a community of early adopters who believed in us.  

So, we decided to be laser-focused on the early adopters – the millennial generation. By creating campaigns targeted at them, we started to grow organically through word-of-mouth. Eventually, we managed to win the audience in that segment and gained momentum. 

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What are some tips for running a successful venture with friends?

It’s taken a lot of persistence and courage to get to where we are today. I like to think that it’s made us become optimists – believing that we can and are doing something that other people thought could not be done. 

There are some key learnings after a decade of working together on Carousell. Firstly, we share and arrive at a common values system in making business and operational decisions. 

“We value teamwork as our company’s core value and we set an expectation that no ego or personal agenda should come in the way of the team and organisation.” 

Secondly, we encourage each other to speak openly and candidly about one’s motivation and long-term goals. We want to build an enduring company that solves meaningful problems using technology. 

Lastly, we hire professionals who are better than us as we scale to grow the company further.

What have you learnt about leadership and teamwork?

An entrepreneur must have the courage to start and learn from mistakes. Coming from an Asian society, we tend to be afraid of making mistakes. But mistakes help us learn. There’ll be many situations that have no straightforward answers. 

You need to be comfortable with ambiguity to experiment and innovate.

A while back, Lucas made the “Sudo rm-rf” mistake, which refers to a command used for removing files and directories in the Linux operating system. He accidentally deleted all of our photos two weeks before our company’s official launch.

Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, and blaming one another, we focused on what we could do to solve the problem. There was no time to lose by crying over spilt milk. 

No blaming game between the three co-founders. (Image credit: Carousell)

As leaders, we have to own mistakes and come up with a solution or a plan. We have to view setbacks as opportunities for learning and problem-solving. We make it a point not to repeat the same mistakes again.

“We are more interested in the value of the lessons that can be learnt instead of hiding or playing the blaming game whenever there is a setback.” 

What are the roles that Carousell is hiring for?

The MyCareersFuture (MCF) portal has been a good tool for us to identify and hire local talent for some of our roles. We were successful in hiring software engineers, data analysts as well as operations and administrative associates.

We are actively hiring for both tech and non-tech roles such as software architects, software and mobile developers, data analysts, data scientists, accounting managers, and operations and administrative associates, just to name a few.

Explore roles at Carousell here.

How big is the Carousell team at the moment and what’s the work culture like?

We have almost 800 employees across the Carousell Group across eight markets. We fight, make magic happen and win together as One Carousell! 

Carousell’s culture embodies the values of HEART, which is an acronym for Humility, Empathy, Accountability, Relentlessly Resourceful and Teamwork. 

Despite our diverse staff which is made up of 17 nationalities, our company’s values help every employee to be on the same page in guiding the company’s growth. 

Read More: Business Heroes: CARRO’s Boss on Pursuing his Passion and Talent He’s Looking Out For

What are the short and long-term business goals for Carousell?

The long-term goal for us is to inspire people to start selling and buying and make secondhand the first choice for everyone. In the short term, we remain very bullish on Carousell being a meaningful enduring company. 

We have a strong leadership position in key monetisation markets with rapid revenue growth traction, a proven classifieds business model and a growing management team with strong commercial track record points. 

Any advice for aspiring technopreneurs? 

My advice would be to start with identifying a problem you feel strongly about solving. You also need to realise that running a startup will be very challenging, so you will need to be absolutely passionate about what you are doing in order to keep going. 

If you care a lot about what you do, keep persevering and pressing on.

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